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Chapped lips


The term 'chapped lips' is used to describe dryness of the lips with scaling and cracking. In severe cases, chapped lips may become infected.
Chapped lips are a common condition and are the result of loss of moisture from the skin in and around the lips. As moisture on the lips evaporates more moisture is drawn out of the skin of the lips, causing them to become dry, lose their suppleness and crack. Chapped lips can have several causes including habitual licking of the lips, dry weather, working outdoors in windy conditions or overexposure to the sun. Lip biting and sucking, continuous breathing through the mouth, vitamin deficiencies, allergic reactions to lipstick and ill-fitting dentures are also other causes of chapped lips. The condition is common in children where it may be caused by sensitivity to substances in toys and foods, or simply by the child licking her or his lips.
The skin of the lips becomes flaky and sore. As the skin flakes off it exposes raw areas underneath, which are very tender to irritants such as salt, hot food or spices. These areas may bleed easily. In extremes of sunshine, the lips can suffer from sunburn in the same way as other areas of the skin. If infection is present, crusts may form on the lips with underlying pus.

Other conditions which affect the lips and which could be mistaken for chapped lips include thrush infections of the mouth and cold sores. However, thrush is caused by a fungus, Candida albicans, and may appear as cracking at the angles of the mouth and white spots are commonly seen inside the cheeks. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus and appear as tiny transparent blisters over reddened skin around the lips. The blisters itch and burn, and generally disappear after about a week to ten days.
Treatment involves rehydrating or moisturising the lips to replace the lost water by using a moisturising lip balm or petroleum jelly.

An antibiotic cream will be required if the lips become infected.
When to see your pharmacist
Visit your pharmacist if you have chapped lips or if you want to prevent chapped lips when on your summer or winter holiday. The pharmacist will be able to recommend a variety of lip balms that will help moisturise the lips and prevent them from becoming chapped. If going on a summer holiday or winter skiing holiday the pharmacist will be able to provide a lip balm that contains a sun block that will protect your lips from becoming sunburnt and that will moisturise them. Vitamin supplements containing vitamin E may also be recommended.
When to see your doctor
Severely cracked lips can become infected. If this happens, and there is pus or bleeding, you may need an antibiotic ointment from your doctor.
Living with chapped lips
If you suffer regularly from chapped lips, prevention is the most important part of managing this problem. Try to break the habit of licking the lips, especially when outdoors in cold or windy weather, or when the sun is strong. Apply a moisturising lip balm frequently and use one that contains a sun block if you are going to be outside during the summer or winter. Children may require a bland, non-flavoured ointment to break the cycle of sucking or licking the lips.

If you think that your chapped lips are caused by a reaction to lipstick or makeup, try not using these products for a while or change to a different brand.

Sores at the angles of the mouth may be caused by badly fitting dentures, which will require correction by your dentist. The sores may also be due to a deficiency of vitamin E, which can be treated with vitamin supplements.
Useful Tips
  • Don't go out in dry, cold weather without putting on lip balm
  • Avoid licking your lips
  • Coating the lips with a greasy product such as moisturiser, vitamin E gel or Aloe Vera gel will help to keep your lips properly moisturised
  • Before applying lipstick, dab on a smear of lip balm or petroleum jelly to give your lips a little moisture
  • Drink plenty of water to help prevent dehydration
  • In sunny weather, use a sunscreen on your lips
  • Keep the air in your home moist

Reviewed on 22 November 2010